Camille Paglia without panache
Arriving in the aftermath of the “political correctness” and “anti-sex feminism” decade of the 1980s, Camille Paglia’s “Sexual Personae” (1990) appeared as a bracing art historical treatise, remembered mainly for popularizing Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Apollonian” vs. “Dionysian” dichotomy (logic, analysis and organization vs. the emotion, irrationality and chaos), with the underlying argument that modern political and academic discourse was woefully at odds with the genuine experience and practice of sex.
Art for Ms. Paglia was the preChristian West’s “return of the repressed,” the latter-day revenge of paganism on a pallid Puritanism and timid academic cant. Covering the period of “decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson,” “Sexual Personae” made a number of provocative observations that sought to enlarge upon a growing mainstream feminist perspective in the humanities. The book’s preface promised a “second volume [that would] show how movies, television, sports and rock music embody all the pagan themes of classical antiquity.”
But a second volume never materialized. Something horrible and unexpected intervened: “Sexual Personae” became a publishing-world sensation, catapulting its author to overnight celebrity. Based on her 1974 Yale dissertation supervised by Harold Bloom, and years in the making, “Sexual Personae” became “the book,” one that ever after entitled its author to pontificate as a “public intellectual” on such topics as date rape, Madonna and the misguided leadership of the National Organization of Women, all without bothering to collate a second 716-page magnum opus (let alone its encumbering 768 endnotes).
Instead of tackling contemporary social issues with the rigor with which she had discussed the Venus of Willendorf or Spenser’s Faerie Queene (with its proto-lesbian action adventure heroine Britomart), Ms. Paglia was interviewed on newsy television, granted opportunities to opine in print, and invited to make scenes. The author found it more expedient to be merely controversial than to perform the difficult, humble work of scholarly research.
“Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism” arrives to remind us that Professor Paglia has certainly kept busy for the past quarter-century; unfortunately, it also reminds us she still hasn’t written “Sexual Personae, Volume Two.”
A collection of public lecture transcriptions, op-ed pieces, contentious book reviews, and a truly bizarre photo gallery of the author’s meteoric media career, this anthology’s best-written selections remain two brief excerpts from “Sexual Personae” (which also offer the book’s only endnotes — seven in all). Mainly, it reminds us that Ms. Paglia was once a substantive, if debatable, scholar but quickly devolved into a sound-bite stand-up. It recaps what has essentially been a 25-year book tour for “Sexual Personae.”
A new introduction easily summarizes every comment of possible interest Ms. Paglia has generated since “Sexual Personae” — dismissals of public figures, many of whom are now largely forgotten; dismissals of academics who have led the higher education of young women astray (including the no-longer read French theorist Jacques Lacan); and commentaries on issues that have been superseded by technology. She also does a lot of unseemly bragging, such as being an early champion of Madonna (a singer notable mainly for being the precursor to Lady Gaga).
A case in point: Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, antiporn feminists who successfully passed ordinances to close down “dirty book stores” during the bygone print era. Ms. Paglia has a wonderful time reliving her put-down of the pair as “Stalinist fanatics,” but in the age of internet “revenge porn,” will anyone still care?
Another example is Michel Foucault, whom academics still do read and whom Ms. Paglia blames for deadening the study of the humanities. Certainly a general reader might desire a collection of essays offering an actual thoughtful engagement with Foucault’s ideas rather than a repetitious series of knee-jerk quips and blanket condemnations.
Ultimately, “Free Women, Free Men” is a disappointing book, because the author’s career since “Sexual Personae” has been disappointing. The fate that may be in store for Ms. Paglia seems not so unlike those visited upon many controversial figures of the past, such as the innovative political satirist Mort Sahl or the Canadian media seer Marshall McLuhan. If remembered at all, these once bright, heretical minds are notable today not for their contrarian ideas or thoughtful observations, but for having made a ruckus with a certain panache. That’s all.